A Review of Inside: Artists and Readers at HM Prison Reading by Artangel
Inside is both very beautiful, and very painful. - Beautiful because of the art that has been assembled, and the architecture of the prison itself. Painful because the prison does not, at first glance, look so terrible. It even resembles university halls of residence. Were they not called “cells” with bars at the windows and doors that lock from the outside, these would be premium, en suite rooms. But they are not, and never were. At one point the toilets were ripped out so that inmates could not use the pipes as a form of communication. Only recently were they re-instated.
Of the 78 admissions to HM Prison Reading in November 1893, 4 were clerics, 23 accused of petty theft, 10 drunk and disorderly, 8 refused to work in the workhouse, and others “trespassed for game” or were caught begging. Arguably the prison’s most famous inmate, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour for Gross Indecency (homosexual acts). He died at the age of 46, shortly after his release. As the prison’s governor Major Nelson said of Wilde: “he looks well. But like all men unused to manual labour who receive a sentence of this kind, he will be dead within two years.”
HM Prison Reading was a “modern” jail designed to foster re-education and correction though prayer, solemn contemplation, and complete isolation. Inmates were isolated to avoid the further spread of criminality.
Among the most striking works Artangel commissioned for the exhibition are Marlene Dumas’ portraits of Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, known also as Bosie. It was Wilde’s lawsuit against Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, that led to incarceration. Dumas’ portraits hang in Wilde’s old cell. Across the corridor is a powerful installation by Nan Goldin, The Boy. Goldin had the cell walls covered with (naked) images of German actor Clemens Schick “a muse to Goldin for over two decades and as aware of the power of his alluring beauty as Bosie had been of his hold over Wilde.”
Elsewhere in the prison, Doris Salcedo’s work Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer) is both ghostly and hopeful. Pairs of tables are set atop one other, four legs down, four legs up. Each table is the size of a coffin, and they are held together with packed earth, from which grow few, tender blades of grass, signalling new life. Salcedo looked to create “a space for remembrance, a graveyard that opens up a space for each body” inspired by her interactions with women in Colombia whose sons had “been disappeared”, their bodies never to be found.
Wilde wrote De Profundis while in Reading Gaol. The powerful text was penned under the guise of a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas so that it might pass the prison’s censors and protocol. Inmates were not allowed to write, save for personal correspondence, but the prison’s governor allowed Wilde this exception. Artangel has organised full readings of De Profundis from the prison. On October 16, Oscar Wilde’s birthday, De Profundis was read by Irish poet Colm Toibin.
Artangel also invited nine contemporary authors and artists to compose “a letter to a loved one from whom they have been separated by state enforcement.” The works of Danny Morrison, Ai Weiwei, Binyavanga Wainaina, Gillian Slovo, Deborah Levy, Tahmina Anam, Joe Dunthorne, and Jeannette Winterson can be read and listened to in different cells.
Wolfgang Tillman’s eerie self-portrait was taken in a cell for inmates in danger of harming themselves. Nothing can be detached from the walls, and all edges are bevelled. The many stainless steel mirrors gave wardens a fuller view of the cell, and could not be broken to use as a weapon. Tillman’s selfie in the mirror portrays a face severely distorted from the steel’s reflection.
Many more artists were invited to present work for the exhibition. Gonzalez-Torres’ playful plastic bead curtains Untitled (Water) in this context are imbued with irony: the freedom with which one can pass through them a marked contrast to the cell’s heavy steel doors. Steve McQueen covered a prison bed with a gold plated mosquito net, conjuring up the claustrophobia and oppression of solitary confinement in such a restricted space. Robert Gober’s sculptures, embedded into the prison’s floor and wall, point instead to “the complex relationship between an interior life and an external world, between inside and outside.”
Artangel succeeds not only in staging an artistically beautiful and powerfully curated exhibition. We are brought inside a prison: a prison only recently decommissioned to which we can relate easily. The place is both real, and quite normal. The cloakroom is in the old gallows. We left our umbrellas where others had left their lives. The experience of Inside invites reflection on the great lengths humans can go to be cruel to one another: locking each other in cells in the name of “correction,” and whatever crime it was that elicited this punishment. A beloved figure and celebrated author, Oscar Wilde was sentenced for something that today is no longer considered a crime.
On at HM Prison Reading until 4th December - see https://www.artangel.org.uk/project/inside/
Written by Nathan Clements-Gillespie, a Contributor to Arteviste.com.